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Seven Wild Sisters
A Modern Fairy Tale
Illustrated by Charles Vess
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Table of Contents
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Spirits in the Woods
here's those that call it ginseng, but 'round here we just call it 'sang. Don't know which is right. All I know for sure is that bees and 'sang don't mix, leastways not in these hills.
Their rivalry's got something to do with sweetness and light and wildflower pollen set against dark rooty things that live deep in the forest dirt. That's why bee spirits'll lead the 'sang poachers to those hidden 'sang beds. It's an unkindness you'd expect more from the Mean Fairy—you know, the way he shows up at parties after the work's all done.
'Course there's spirits in the hills. How could there not be? You think we're alone in this world? We have us a very peopled woods, and I've seen all kinds in my time, big and small.
The Father of Cats haunts these hills. Most times he's this big old panther, sleek and black, but the Kickaha say he can look like a handsome, black-haired man, the fancy takes him. I only ever saw him as a panther. Seeing yourself a panther is unusual enough, though I suppose it's something anybody who spends enough time in these woods can eventually claim. But I heard him talk.
Don't you smile. I don't tell lies.
Then there's the Green Boy—you want to watch out for him. He lives in the branches of trees and he's got him this great big smile because he's everybody's friend, that's a certain fact. He loves company, loves to joke and tell stories, but one day with him is like a year for everybody else you left behind.
See, some places, you've got to be careful on how the time passes. There's caves 'round these parts that can take you right out of this world and into another, but the days go by slower there, like they did for Rip Van Winkle. I met an artist once, he was gone twenty years in this world, but only a few days had passed for him on the other side.
What happened? He went back. That's another caution you need to heed. Places like that can take a powerful hold of you, make you feel like everything in your life is empty because you're not breathing magic.
There's wonders, no question, but there's danger, too, and that's not the only one. You listen to what I'm telling you.
Old Bubba's been seen more than once in these parts, but you stay clear of him. I know there's some have claimed they got the better of that old devil man, but if you bargain with him, I believe you'll carry a piece of his darkness inside you way into forever, doesn't matter that you got the best of him once.
I suppose the one I know best is the Apple Tree Man, lives in the oldest tree of the orchard. Do you know that old song?
Jimmy had a penny,
he put it in a can.
He give it to the night
and the Apple Tree Man.
Singing, pour me a cider,
like I never had me one.
Pour me a cider,
give everybody some.
I've known him since I was younger than you, but he hasn't changed much in all those years. He's still the same wrinkled, gnarly old fellow he was the first time I met him. The time is right, maybe I'll introduce the two of you.
Fairies? Oh, I've seen them, all right. Not every day, but they're out there.
First time, I was just a little girl. They were these little fox fire lights, dancing out there in the field like flickerbugs. It wasn't any snakebit fever that let me see them, though I did have the venom in me from a bite I got earlier that day. I could have died, lit a shuck right out of this world and there's me, no more than twelve years old, but the Apple Tree Man drew the poison right out of me with a madstone soaked in milk.
Him and the Father of Cats, they saved my life, though only the Father of Cats wanted payment, so I owe him a favor. If I can't pay it when he comes asking, then one of my descendants has to. Trouble is, I never had any children. I'm the last of this line of Kindreds, so far as I know.
Anywise, instead of dying, I got me a big piece of magic that night. It was hard to hang on to for a time, but I know no matter what else I experience in this world, scraps and pieces of that magic'll be with me forever. I don't question that.
You get on in years and it can be hard for a body to tell a difference between things that happened and things you thought might have happened, but I know better. There's a veil, thin as a funeral shroud, that divides this world from some other. You do it right and you can walk on either side of it. The world you find on one side or the other, the people you meet, they're all real.
I reckon it's been seventy years, maybe longer, since the Father of Cats came out of the forest and made me beholden to him. I'm getting on now. I'm not saying my time is come, but it's getting there. Year by year. And I guess I'd just like to see him again. Pay my debt before it's time for me to move on.
arah Jane Dillard didn't think the old woman was crazy, though most everybody else did. Folks liked her well enough—they'd pass the time with her when she came into town and all—but what else could you think about a woman in her eighties, living alone on a mountaintop, an hour's walk in from the county road?
It wasn't like she was a granny woman who needed her solitude. She had her herbs and simples, and she'd be the first to lend a hand, somebody needed help, but she wasn't known in these parts for cures and midwifery like the Welch women were. She was just an old woman, kept herself to herself. Not unfriendly, but not looking to step into social circles anytime soon, either.
"What does she do up there, all on her own?" someone or other would ask from time to time.
They might not know, but Sarah Jane did.
Aunt Lillian lived the same now as she had since she was a child. She had no phone, no electricity, no running water. The only food she bought was what she couldn't grow herself or gather from the woods around her.
So most of her time was taken up with the basic tasks of eking out a living from her land and the forest. It took a lot of hours in a day to see after her gardens, the cow and chickens, the orchard and hives. To go into the woods in season to gather greens and herbs, nuts and berries, and 'sang. Water had to be carried in from the springhouse, the woodbox filled, and any number of other day-to-day chores needed doing.
It wasn't so much a question of what she did, as there hardly being the time in a day to get it all done.
"But don't you find it hard?" Sarah Jane had asked her once. "Keeping up with it all?"
Aunt Lillian had smiled. "Hard's being confined to a sickbed, like some my age are," she'd said. "Hard's not being able to look after yourself. What I do… it's just living, girl."
"But you could buy your food instead of growing it."
"Sure, I could, except it wouldn't necessarily be as pleasing to my soul."
"You find weeding a garden pleasing?"
"You should try it, girl. You might be surprised."
The trail to Aunt Lillian's house started in the pasture beside the Welches' farm, then took a winding route up into the hills, traveling alongside the creek as it flowed down the length of the hollow.
In spring the creek grew swollen, the water tumbling over stone staircases, overflowing pools, and running quickly along the narrows until it finally reached the pasture, where it dove under the county road before continuing on its way. By fall the creek was reduced to a trickle, though it never dried up completely. There were always a few deep pools, even in the hottest months of the summer, home to fish, spring peepers, and deep-throated bullfrogs, and perfect for a cool dip on a sweltering day.
Tall sprucy-pine grew on either side of the trail, sharing the steep slopes of the hollow with yellow birch, oak, and beech. Under them was a thick shrub layer of rhododendrons and mountain laurel. Higher up, tulip trees and more sprucy-pine rose on either side with a thick understory of redbud, magnolia, and dogwood. Even with her yellow hound, Root, at her side, Sarah Jane had seen deer, fox, hares, raccoons, and possum, not to mention the endless chorus of birds and squirrels scolding all intruders from the safety of the trees—when they weren't occupied with their own business, that is.
The walk through these woods, with the conversation of the creek as constant company, was something Sarah Jane quickly grew to love. It didn't matter if she was just ambling along with Root, or pulling Aunt Lillian's cart—fetching the supplies that were dropped off for Aunt Lillian at the Welches' farm or hauling them back to her old house up in the hills.
Sarah Jane's own family lived next door to the Welches, on what everybody still called the old Shaffer farm. Though they'd been living there for the better part of ten years now, and her grandparents for five years before that, she'd become resigned to knowing that it would probably never be called the Dillard farm.
They'd moved here from Hazard after her father died—she, her mother, and her six sisters—to live with Granny Burrell, her maternal grandmother. The Burrells had bought the farm from the Shaffers a few years before Sarah Jane's family arrived and hadn't had any more luck losing the Shaffer name than they did. When Granny Burrell died, she left the farm to Sarah Jane's mother and now it was home to their little clan of red-haired, independent-thinking girls.
"If you weren't so bullish," Granny Burrell would say, "you'd have better luck getting another father for those wayward girls of yours."
"Maybe they don't want another father," Sherry Dillard would tell her mother. "And I sure plan to be choosy about the next man I have in my life. I'd just as soon have none than get me one that won't match up to my Jimmy."
"You're going to ruin your life."
"Least it's my life," their mother would say.
But if their mother had a mind of her own, her daughters gave a whole new meaning to independent thinking.
Adie, named after their paternal grandmother, Ada, was the eldest. From the time she could walk, she'd always been in one kind of trouble or another, from sassing the teachers in grade school to eloping at sixteen with Johnny Garland, the two of them hightailing it out of the county on Johnny's motorcycle. She came back seven months later, unrepentant, but done with boyfriends for the time being.
The twins, Laurel and Bess, were born the year after her. They were also mad about boys, but their first love was music—making it, dancing to it, anything there might be that had to do with it. They both sang, making those sweet harmonies that only sisters can. Laurel played the fiddle, Bess the banjo, and the two could be found at any barn dance or hooley within a few miles' radius of the farm, kicking up their heels on the dance floor with an ever-rotating cast of partners, or playing their instruments on the stage, keeping up with the best of them. When they were home, just the two of them, they'd amuse themselves arranging pop music from the seventies and eighties into old-timey and bluegrass settings.
Sarah Jane was born two years after the twins. She was the middle child, double-named because this time her mother meant to be ready if she had another set of twins. They'd be Sarah and Jane if they were girls, Robert and William if they were boys. When she got just the one girl, she couldn't decide which of the two girl names to pick, so she gave her both.
As the middle child, Sarah Jane bridged her sisters not only in years, but also in temperament. Like her older sisters, she loved to dance and run a little wild. But she also loved reading and drawing, and could sit quietly with her younger sister Elsie for hours, watching the light change on the underwater stones as the creek streamed above them or contemplating the possibility that what the crows rasped and cawed at each other might actually be some secret language that people didn't understand.
Elsie was different from her sisters in other ways. She was lean and wiry, the quietest of the girls, more so since they'd moved here. Now she spent all her time in the surrounding woods and hills, stalking anything and everything, from bugs and birds to fox and deer.
Their mother jokingly referred to Elsie as her feral daughter and that wasn't far off the mark. Elsie was always happiest out in the woods, day or night, and no matter what the season. She could run as fast as a deer, but she could be almost preternaturally still, too. Sarah Jane had never known anyone who could sit so quietly for so long. "I'm just watching the grass grow," Elsie would say when she was found in a meadow, gazing off across the wildflowers and weeds.
And finally there were Ruth and Grace, also twins. They'd belied the biblical ring of their names from the moment they came home from the hospital, working like a tag team as they ensured that if they couldn't get a full night's sleep for their first two years in the world, then no one else in the household would, either. No sooner would one drop off than the other would start in crying, and there would be two fussing infants to be dealt with once more.
The older they grew, the more of a handful they became. They could never simply do a thing without first knowing the how and why of its needing to be done, and that knowing had to be explained in great and painstaking detail. But it was better to take the time to explain, else they could take a thing apart just to see how it worked, and it might never get put back together again.
They loved playing practical jokes, though never mean-spirited ones. And stubborn? A mule was a pushover compared to trying to shift them once they had their minds set on a thing.
Sarah Jane had known for years that an old woman lived at the end of the trail that began in the Welches' pasture. She'd even seen her a few times, if only from a distance, which suited Sarah Jane just fine. Adie and the older twins were forever spooking the younger girls, telling them that if they weren't good, the old witch woman who lived in the hills would come and get them. She had this oven, see, big enough to hold a child trussed up like a roasting chicken.…
For ages Sarah Jane and her younger sisters had lived in fear of her. But one summer, three years ago, Sarah Jane and Elsie had dared each other to follow the trail to see where the old woman lived.
They took Root with them. That yellow short-haired hound of Sarah Jane's was a couple of years old at the time and full of beans, forever digging in the garden or wherever else he thought he might find a bone or a rabbit burrow, though Mama swore that he didn't need an excuse. Root was just a dog that was happy digging.
"It's your own fault," she'd tell Sarah Jane. "Giving him such a name."
How she got that dog was a whole other story, in and of itself.
Sarah Jane was lying abed one night watching moon shadows of beech trees outside as they moved and stretched across the ceiling of her room. For some odd reason, she hadn't been able to sleep. Her head was filled with everything and nothing—a fairly common occurrence, really.
She heard the dog start to cry an hour or so after midnight—a distant whining that occasionally broke into louder yelping. At first she thought that one of the neighbors had gotten a new pet and put it out on a chain for its first night out. There was that desperation in its voice that dogs do so well—an anxiety that can make you believe the theory that dogs live entirely in the present, with no recollection of the past or hope for the future. This dog had been put out and, so far as it could see, that was where it had to be for the rest of its life.
But as she lay there, alternately dozing and waking up when the cries got louder, she got to thinking about what if the dog was really in trouble. It might have broken loose from somewhere and gotten its chain wrapped around a tree or something. That had happened before and not so far from here. She'd overheard George Welch telling her mother about finding the bones of a dog one spring, how it had still been wearing a collar, its lead entangled in the roots of a tree.
"That was a hard death," she remembered him saying. "I wouldn't wish it on anyone, man or critter."
Sighing, she threw back the comforter and sat up. The floor was icy on her bare feet as she padded across the room to where she'd draped her clothes over a chair. Elsie began to stir as Sarah Jane was getting dressed.
"Whatcha… doing…?" Elsie asked, her voice thick with sleep.
"Nothing," Sarah Jane told her. "I'm just going to get a little air."
"But… it's the middle of the night.…" Elsie murmured.
Like she herself hadn't been out and about in the woods in the middle of the night a hundred times before, looking for owls and bats and who knew what.
"Go back to sleep," Sarah Jane said.
She thought Elsie might protest—after all, this was a midnight excursion into her beloved woods—but she'd already fallen back to sleep before Sarah Jane finished dressing and left the room.
Downstairs she put some biscuits in her pocket, got a length of rope from the shed, and went out into the fall night with a lantern that she didn't bother to light. The moonlight was enough. Once she'd closed the door behind her, she stood quietly for a long moment and tilted her face up to the sky, drinking in the stars, the dark, and the wind.
Then she heard the dog yelp again.
It took her a moment to decide where the sound was coming from—it was always tricky with a wind—then she started across the back fields, going right up the mountain and into the edge of Tanglewood Forest.
It didn't take her long to find the dog, trapped as it was. He had a rope around his neck, the loose end of which had gotten caught in some old barbed wire. By the time she reached him, he was so entangled that his head was pressed right against the old fencepost. A barb from the wire was pricking him just above his eye and there was blood on his fur.
She approached quietly, speaking in a low and comforting voice. When she was close enough, she put out her hand so that he could smell her. She wasn't exactly nervous, but you never could tell with dogs in a pickle. When he thumped his tail and gave her hand a little lick, she gave up all caution.
He lay still while she worked the rope loose, wishing she'd brought a knife. Before she had him completely free, she made a slip knot with the rope she'd brought and looped it around his neck. When she got the last of the old rope untangled, the dog stood up on trembling legs and leaned against her. He gazed up at her, his eyes big in the moonlight.
"Now who do you belong to?" she asked, ruffling the short hair between his ears.
He grinned and bumped his head against her, tail wagging furiously. She smiled and brought him home, taking him right up into her room. After the night he'd had, she couldn't bear the idea of tying him up outside or locking him in the shed. He lay down on the floor beside her bed, but as soon as she got under the covers, he was up on the bed with her, stretched out along her side.
Mama was going to kill her, she remembered thinking before she fell asleep with her hand on his chest.
When she woke, he was lying on the floor again, and that was how Mama found them. She always felt that he'd done that on purpose, just to get on Mama's good side. And it had worked, once Sarah Jane told her story.
"You can keep him till we find who he belongs to," Mama said.
"Maybe we never will," Elsie said, her face hopeful.
All her sisters had immediately fallen in love with him.
"A dog that good-natured has to have someone who loves him," Mama replied.
- * "Beautiful bookmaking, lovely storytelling, and wondrous illustrations....readers will be enchanted."—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
- * "The lyrical narrative blends a contemporary setting with a fairy tale that might have been plucked from a distinctly different time and place."—Publishers Weekly, starred review
- * "[A] delicious companion novel."—School Library Journal
- "There is an elegance and thoughtfulness to both the text and accompanying illustrations that elevates the story.... Folktale and fairy tale fans who are seeking a longer adventure into which to settle will find this a perfect fit."—The Bulletin
- On Sale
- Feb 4, 2014
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers